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The Cajun Mardi Gras Song

"La Danse de Mardi Gras"

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Musicians Kevin Wimmer, Cedric Watson, and Wilson Savoy Play on the Street at Cajun Mardi Gras

Musicians Kevin Wimmer, Cedric Watson, and Wilson Savoy Play on the Street at Cajun Mardi Gras

(c) Megan Romer, 2009
The Cajun Mardi Gras Song, known in Cajun French as "La Danse de Mardi Gras" or "La [Vieille] Chanson de Mardi Gras," is a mainstay in Cajun Mardi Gras celebrations, and an important piece in the repertoire of any traditional Cajun Music band.

The Mardi Gras Song is most commonly heard within the context of a traditional Cajun Mardi Gras run (see pictures of a traditional Cajun courir), and is played as the Mardi Gras "runners" travel from house to house begging for ingredients for a gumbo. The Mardi Gras Song is not the only song played, but it is an important musical component to a celebration that has roots that are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

History of the Cajun Mardi Gras Song

As is the case with most traditional folk songs, not many specifics are known about the history of "La Danse de Mardi Gras." It is generally posited, though, that the melody is much older than the lyrics, as its modal sound and melodic form are indicative of old Breton (French Celtic) melodies, which could've easily been brought along by the Acadians through their journey from France to Canada to Southwest Louisiana. The lyrics are clearly more recent, though also likely well over 100 years old, and are not fully standardized -- different groups will sing them with slight variations.

Lyrics to "La Danse de Mardi Gras"

Note that the lyrics to the Cajun Mardi Gras Song are not standardized, and many different versions appear. This set of lyrics is a frequently-heard one, though is no more or less "correct" than other similar versions. Also note the Cajun French is a dialect of French that does not have fully standardized spelling conventions; I've written most of this with Standard French spelling conventions, unless the word or phrase itself is specifically Cajun and thus has no "correct" Standard French spelling.

In Cajun French:

Les Mardi Gras s'en vient de tout partout,
Tout alentour le tour du moyeu,
Ça passe une fois par an, demandé la charité,
Quand-même ça c'est une patate, une patate ou des gratons

Les Mardi Gras sont dessus un grand voyage,
Tout alentour le tour du moyeu,
Ça passe une fois par an, demandé la charité,
Quand-même ça c'est un poule maigre, ou trois ou quatre coton maïs.

Capitaine, capitaine, voyage ton flag,
Allons chez un autre voisin,
Demandé la charité pour les autres qui viennent nous rejoindre,
Les autres qui viennent nous rejoindre,
Ouais, au gombo ce soir!

Translation:

The Mardi Gras come from all around, all around the center of town.
They come by once per year, asking for charity.
Sometimes it's a sweet potato, a sweet potato or pork rinds.

The Mardi Gras are on a great journey, all around the center of town.
They come by once per year, asking for charity.
Sometimes it's a skinny chicken, or three or four corn cobs.

Captain, captain, wave your flag, let's go to another neighbor's.
Asking for charity for everyone who'll come join us later,
Everyone who'll come join us later at the gumbo tonight!

Note that the boldfaced lines in the French version are "sing along" parts; musicians and the crowd alike sing them loudly.

Essential Recordings of "La Danse de Mardi Gras"

  • "La Danse de Mardi Gras" - Bee Deshotels: This is an excellent old field recording of a musician named Bee Deshotels, who was a great singer of old Cajun French ballads. Many of the words are different (though related) to those written out above, and the vocal melody is performed slightly differently than many of the more modern recordings that are available. (Listen/Download)
  • "La Danse de Mardi Gras" - The Balfa Brothers: The Balfa Brothers recorded several versions of this song, all of which are seminal. The lyrics are very similar to those written out above, and the vocal melody is the one most commonly heard on Mardi Gras runs today. (Listen/Download)
  • "La Danse de Mardi Gras" - Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys: This is an outstanding and dynamic modern recording of the Mardi Gras song, done by one of Louisiana's most popular artists. The lyrics are almost identical to what you'll see above, and the melody is the one most commonly heard on Mardi Gras runs today (except for the dramatized ending, which lends itself well to recording and performance; not so much to trying to get a bunch of half-drunk runners to sing in tune while chasing chickens). (Listen/Download)
  • "La Vieille Chanson de Mardi Gras" - Cedric Watson: This version of the Mardi Gras song is a Creole version, stylistically and structurally different than the Cajun version, but with the same roots. It's a fun, spirited version played by up-and-coming Creole fiddler Cedric Watson, and worth a listen for "compare and contrast" reasons, as well as just because it's fantastic. (Listen/Download)
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